WASHINGTON - Some of baseball's brightest stars uneasily testified yesterday about steroid use, but a House committee saved its fire for baseball executives, going so far as to question whether their sport still deserved its treasured exemption from antitrust laws.
In an all-day hearing, the Committee on Government Reform had two targets: the celebrity ballplayers - including two Orioles and a defiant Mark McGwire - and the sport's governing officials. Mostly, it threw softballs at the players while pelting commissioner Bud Selig and his aides with inside heat.
"I have not been reassured one bit by the testimony I've heard today," said committee member Stephen F. Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat. "There are so many loopholes in this [steroid testing], it is just unbelievable. I think Congress has to act."
It was the handful of current and former ballplayers who created the oddest spectacle. Wearing dark suits and ties instead of uniforms, they were sworn in and asked to sit at the same witness table with retired slugger Jose Canseco, who has accused several of them of steroid use.
Most of the players seemed uneasy. Asked whether he supports a tougher steroid testing policy, McGwire drew a laugh when he replied: "Whatever anybody can do to improve it so there are no more meetings like this, I'm all for it."
Earlier, McGwire, his voice quivering with emotion, said he was unable to answer questions about whether he used steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs.
"My lawyers have advised me that I cannot answer these questions without jeopardizing my friends, my family or myself," said McGwire, who had a record-setting home run duel with current Oriole and fellow witness Sammy Sosa in 1998. "If a player answers no, he simply will not be believed. If he answers yes, he risks public scorn and endless government investigations."
McGwire's repeated refusal to address questions about past behavior - as well as the curt answers of other current and former players - frustrated some committee members. The committee had convened the all-day hearing after saying it wanted to uncover the truth about steroid rumors and allegations in the sport, and send a warning about the drugs to youths.
"McGwire's testimony was a euphemism for saying, 'I'm not about to come clean,'" Rep. Mark E. Souder, an Indiana Republican, said in an interview. "As a baseball fan, I think he should have double or triple asterisks beside his records."
Canseco sat next to the men who - in the case of McGwire and Oriole Rafael Palmeiro - he had accused of steroid use in his book. Canseco wrote that he also suspected Sosa, a former Chicago Cub traded to the Orioles this year, but had no proof.
In his remarks, Palmeiro got right to the point. "I have never used steroids. Period. I don't know how to say it any more clearly than that."
Palmeiro, who said his family fled communist Cuba and embraced "the American Dream," offered to be an advocate in educating young people about steroid risks.
Sosa told the panel: "I have never taken performance-enhancing drugs. I have never injected myself or had anyone inject me with anything."
Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, a California Democrat, said she detected a "see-no-evil" attitude among the players. "I'm extremely disappointed in the testimony today. I'm not asking you to name names," she said.
But the committee generally didn't push McGwire or other players to respond. After a pointed question from a panelist about how McGwire might have known the "direct effect" of steroids, committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III cut off the question. Davis, a Virginia Republican, said House rules protected witnesses from inquiries that would "defame, degrade or incriminate."
While the committee approved no formal rule, there was informal agreement among most members "that if there was a clear sense someone would not answer a question, we would not go after them," said a committee staff member on the condition of anonymity.
Illinois Democrat Danny K. Davis said, "I think different individuals decided this was not a criminal investigation and it was not about embarrassing individual players."
Baseball executives received no such cushion.
Baseball was repeatedly accused by the committee of "inaction" on steroids and misleading the public about the toughness of its drug testing policy. While Selig assured the panel of "tremendous progress" on steroids, many on the panel disagreed.
"Is Major League Baseball worthy of that antitrust exemption granted at the federal level?" asked Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican. "All I'm asking is that this issue [steroids] be given the same level of attention and interest by Major League Baseball as the gambling issue. The policy, to many of us, is unacceptable."
Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, the committee's ranking Democrat, suggested it might be "time for some new leadership in baseball."
Baseball uses the antitrust exemption to pool resources among its teams and engage in other behavior that would not be permitted by other businesses.
A memorandum prepared for the hearing by the committee's Democratic leadership said: "Baseball is a multi-billion dollar industry that enjoys extensive public subsidies, tax breaks and an exemption from antitrust laws. Over the last decade, credible allegations of widespread use of anabolic steroids have cast a cloud over the sport."
Selig testified that the sport has reduced positive tests for performance-enhancing drugs from 5 percent to 7 percent in 2003 to 1 percent to 2 percent in 2004. He praised a testing agreement reached with the players' union in January that , for the first time, includes year-round testing and a 10-day suspension for a first violation.
"I can assure you we're not taking this lightly," the commissioner told the panel.
But committee members said a draft of the new testing protocols indicates that the initial penalty can be either a suspension or a $10,000 fine. Another "loophole" cited by the panel is a provision that the testing policy will be suspended if there is an independent government investigation into drug use in baseball.
Baseball defended the provision by saying it was written to protect players' privacy.
From the beginning of the 11-hour hearing, the committee seemed eager to clarify that it was not on a "witch hunt." Davis, the chairman, characterized the hearing's purpose in broad public policy terms. He said the most important function was to address "the larger societal and public health ramifications of steroid use."
In addition to issuing subpoenas to players, the committee invited two couples who blame steroids for their sons' suicides. The Hootons of Texas and the Garibaldis of California said their sons, one in high school and one in college, were advised by coaches to get bigger. Each family blames steroids for the young men's deaths and says major league stars set a bad example.
"You are cowards when it comes to facing your fans and the kids," said Donald Hooton, his voice rising. He is the father of former high school pitcher Taylor Hooton, who died 20 months ago as he was about to enter his senior year in Plano, Texas. "Why don't you behave like we try to teach our kids to behave?" Hooton asked.
Davis said that Canseco's recent tell-all book - and baseball's initial refusal to investigate its allegations - were instrumental in his decision to convene the session. A former Washington Senators fan, Davis said baseball "misjudged our seriousness of purpose."
Canseco has been the object of scorn within baseball since his book was released last month, claiming to expose "rampant" steroid use in the sport. One witness yesterday, Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling said he hoped the hearing wouldn't help Canseco "sell more books."
Staff writer Jonathan Pitts contributed to this article.